The fictionalised travel memoir More to Life (2017), 'based on real events', is by Maureen Moss, an inveterate globetrotter. It is at turns illuminating, poignant and amusing.
Approaching her fiftieth year, suffering the trauma of divorce, loss of job and sale of house, Rachael Green decides to ‘find herself’ by travelling to the Far East. Small snag: she has three children, two of them teenagers. It’s agreed she’ll take Conrad and Sara, leaving the youngest Sophie with her ex. Sophie can join them at the tail-end of their jaunt in Australia. Simple, really. Brave. Or possibly foolhardy. These events take place in 1997; it might be riskier attempting this kind of journey these days.
First stop, the Indian subcontinent. We’re treated to the sights, smells, the poverty, and the wonderful tigers. Travelling on a shoe-string budget meant that their accommodation wasn’t quite what they were used to. ‘In our dark, damp, dingy, smelly rooms cockroaches scurried up the walls, across the ceiling and down the opposite side. Sitting on the toilet in the one-metre-square shower room required keeping your feet above the floor level to avoid the creatures scrambling over your toes.’ (p117)
From time to time, Rachael sends a letter to Sophie, possibly to sooth her angst over leaving her daughter. And her thoughts dwelled on her decision: ‘I was hauling them around places where dead bodies lay unnoticed, where extreme poverty and physical deformities were commonplace, and where parents had to sell their children.’ (p118)
There are plenty of amusing interludes to lighten the mood, such as travelling in a railway compartment designed for six people yet accommodating fifteen, some of whom used the luggage racks as extra seating.
Then it’s on to south-east Asia, starting in Singapore, then to Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. They’re joined by Rachael’s sister-in-law Louise who has left home, and Gecko, a friend of Conrad’s, and Michael, the boyfriend of Sara. These additional mouths to feed strain the budget further, but provide more conflict, amusement and distractions: penalty for removing pebbles from the beach, five to ten years’ imprisonment. Rachael says she reads a lot on the journey – though doesn’t explain what; was this before the e-reader? Then there’s Sara’s scream, when a huge cricket jumped in between her boobs! (p165) and Michael’s worry about safety when they’re floating in the river in a boat made from a B52 bomber fuel tank – during a lightning storm! (p166)
I don’t know why Rachael should feel she needs to atone for being part of the human race, for being one of a species capable of the appalling slaughter and inhumanity of the Pol Pot regime. You can be appalled without feeling misplaced guilt, surely? (p182)
From the tragic to the frivolous. There’s a joke that Rachael makes about the Mekong Delta, referring to the emperor from the Flash Gordon adventures. Unfortunately, the Mekon was a Dan Dare villain; Emperor Ming was the Flash Gordon villain! As Sara observed, ‘You’re funny, Ma – not.’
The book is teeming with vivid description, such as: ‘Images flashed past, of baskets suspended from shoulder poles, water buffalo gently swishing their tails in muddy rivers, field workers in conical hats bent low as they toiled. In the villages barefoot skinny children played in rubbish-strewn streets… monkeys approached lopsidedly to steal bananas…’ (p192)
Of all the places she visited Rachael seemed most affected by Vietnam and its stoic gentle people. (p237)
Did Rachael ‘find herself’? You’ll need to read this always entertaining, colourful and thought-provoking book to find out. At the very least she proved that there’s more to life than feeling sorry for yourself. Highly recommended.
A shorter version of this review will appear on Amazon.